Denmark is renowned as one of the world’s most advanced countries with a sterling record for social justice, equality and a generous welfare system.
However, not even the Danes have been spared the ravages of the economic crisis in Europe.
According to Denmark’s National Centre for Social Research (SFI), the country had registered 5,290 homeless people last year – half of whom live in urban centers, including Copenhagen, where the cost of living is very high.
The Copenhagen Post reported that, similar to many other western nations, the homeless in Denmark tend to suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness.
One of Denmark’s street people is Henrik ‘Popeye’ Jørgensen, who at age 50 has been homeless for more than half of his life.
"I get angry at myself, thinking about the bad choices I have made in my life,” he told the Post.
The Danish government has provided apartments for some homeless people, in order to give them some sense of stability. But the policy does not work for everyone.
“If you are put in an apartment with bare walls, you feel isolated with no one to talk to, and you go back onto the street,” said Poul Strove Nielsen, the editor of Hus Forbi, a street newspaper, according to the Post.
That is precisely what happened to Jørgensen, one of Hus Forbi’s registered sellers.
Annette Mainz, the manager of Herberget Lindevangen, a homeless shelter in the city of Frederiksberg, just outside of Copenhagen, cautioned that drugs and alcohol were not the sole determinants behind homelessness.
“It is common to think that when you’re homeless, you have to look a certain way and sit with a beer, but you can actually be homeless in another way, which is just as horrible,” she told the Post.
“[The homeless] don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to look after their own money, they don’t know how to behave properly, or even to read.”
Mainz added that Denmark’s extravagant welfare state may have created a sense of entitlement among the country’s youth.
“It’s like people have an attitude where they think ‘the council has to help me somehow,’” she said.
“It means they haven’t learnt anything! I’m not thinking of miracles, I’m thinking of small steps, like being able to pay the rent every month.”
An SFI report on Danish homelessness in 2009 noted that 50 percent of the nation’s homeless live in the Greater Copenhagen Area, and the majority of this group comprised young or middle-aged men.
“Only very few have any attachment to the labor market,” SFI noted.
“Homelessness is a problem particularly for vulnerable groups, as many of the homeless suffer from mental disorders and are substance or alcohol abusers. Many homeless people state that these conditions are significant contributing factors to their homelessness. In spite of this, only approximately 50 percent of the homeless receive any kind of treatment to help them deal with their abuse or mental problems. Only one in three have signed up for a place to live or an accommodation programme, and one in four have been homeless for more than two years.”
In the meantime, the homeless problem in Denmark is unlikely to ease anytime soon.
Earlier this month, the government's statistics office reported that Denmark’s GDP shrank 0.5 percent in the second quarter on a year-over-year basis, while it cut its 2012 GDP forecast to 0.9 percent from 1.1 percent.
Net unemployment is now at 4.7 percent, the highest level in six years. Labor Minister Mette Frederiksen warned that the jobless rate will continue to climb into 2013.
“Getting a job at the moment is difficult enough, let alone when the jobseeker is inefficient,” said Jann Sjursen, chairman of the Rådet for Socialt Udsatte (Council of Socially Marginalized People), according to the Post.
“The problem in Denmark and other European countries at the moment is there’s no work. And if you have health problems and you’re not very good at getting up in the mornings and you’re not stabilized, then it’s hard to get a job.”
Homelessness in Denmark is also linked to rising rates of suicide.
The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) stated that in Denmark, homeless men are 7.3-times more likely to kill themselves than the general population, while homeless women are 14.8 times more likely to do so.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.